By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–The UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples called on the Harper government to reverse course on three major fronts in order to avoid a “rocky road” in its relationship with the country’s First Nation population.
During an Ottawa press conference Tuesday marking the end of his nine-day tour through Canada, James Anaya said the country faces “a crisis when it comes to the situation of Indigenous peoples.”
Anaya said the “well-being gap” between First Nation and non-First Nation people in Canada continues to grow and that he witnessed “high levels of distrust among Aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels.”
He said First Nation people were still suffering from “multiple legacies of the history of colonization, treaty infringements, assault on their cultures and land dispossession.”
Anaya visited First Nation communities in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. He also met with federal officials, including Valcourt, and the RCMP.
Anaya initially requested permission to visit Canada in February 2012 and wrote Ottawa three times requesting official permission to visit. He finally received permission this past summer.
Anaya, who will issue a report next year based on his visit, said Ottawa needed to start mending its relationship with the country’s First Nation population. The path he recommended, however, would require the Harper government to abandon hardened positions on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), calls for a national inquiry into the high number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and proposed legislation governing on-reserve education.
“In order for the trust that needs to be built, these kinds of steps need to be taken,” said Anaya. “That path forward has to be defined with the participation of Aboriginal peoples’ concerns and if that doesn’t happen the path forward will be a rocky one.”
In an emailed statement, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office sidestepped questions asking whether there would be any shift from long-standing positions on the TRC, the national inquiry and the First Nations Education Act, as requested by Anaya.
“The special rapporteur’s observations in regard to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Canada is at the centre of Canada’s preoccupations and explains why the Government has taken, and continues to take, effective incremental steps to improve the situation in partnership with Aboriginal Canadians,” said the statement.
Anaya, however, said he didn’t believe the Harper government wouldn’t budge.
“I am not going to accept the premise they are not going to move on these issues and yes I have discussed these matters with the government officials I spoke with. There was no expression of negativity toward me in my making these recommendations,” said Anaya. “These are matters that need to be reconsidered.”
Anaya said the TRC’s probing of the dark history and legacy of residential schools is so important Ottawa needed to do allow the commission the time it needed to fully finish its work. The TRC’s mandate expires at the end of next July.
“It is clear that the residential school period continues to cast a long shadow of despair on Indigenous communities and that many of the dire social and economic problems faced by Aboriginal peoples are directly linked to that experience,” said Anaya. “I urge the government to ensure that the mandate of the (TRC) be extended for as long as necessary for it to complete its work and to consider establishing means of reconciliation and redress for survivors of all types of residential schools.”
The Harper government has resisted previous calls to extend the TRC’s mandate. A senior federal official told APTN National News late last fall that the commission would not be getting its desired extension. The TRC has been battling Ottawa over historical residential school documents and was forced to take the federal government to court on the issue.
Anaya also called on the Harper government to strike a national inquiry into the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“A comprehensive and nation-wide inquiry into the issue could help ensure a coordinated response and the opportunity for the loved ones of victims to be heard,” said Anaya. “And (it) would demonstrate responsiveness to the concerns raised by the families and communities affected by this epidemic.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said on more than one occasion he does not want to call for a national inquiry into the matter. The prime minister told First Nation leaders during a meeting last January he doesn’t believe such an inquiry would lead to any real change.
On education, Anaya called on Ottawa to recalibrate its plans to introduce legislation governing on-reserve schools.
“I have heard remarkably consistent and profound distrust toward the First Nations Education Act being developed by the federal government, and in particular deep concerns that the process for developing the Act has not appropriately included nor responded to Aboriginal views,” said Anaya. “I urge the government not to rush forward with this legislation, but to re-initiate discussions with Aboriginal leaders.”
He also called for increased funding to put on-reserve education systems on par with province-run systems.
The Harper government has repeatedly stated it wants to have its proposed First Nations Education Act in force by the time school begins again next September. Ottawa has made the issue central to its Aboriginal affairs goals. It created a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue, launched controversial consultation sessions across the country and released a blue-print of the legislation this past summer. Valcourt has also promised First Nations leaders a chance to see the legislation before it’s tabled in Parliament, but funding would not accompany the proposed Act.
The Throne Speech, which lays out the government’s agenda for the next Parliamentary session, is expected to highlight the Harper government’s plans for education legislation.